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Whisky writing's finest moment

Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald is being republished. But who was the writer shielded behind the author's pseudonym? Ian Buxton solves the mystery
By Ian Buxton
It is, according to Dave Broom, “the finest whisky book ever written.” Charles MacLean nominates it as “the one whisky book I would take to a desert island.” T S Eliot presented a copy to Harold Monro of the Poetry Bookshop.Christopher Morley, a giant of pre-war American literary life, gave a “red hot recommendation” to United States publishers and arranged to have the first chapter privately printed and circulated amongst his friends. This, it should be noted, during Prohibition.Yet, for all this acclaim, the real author remains largely unknown (it was published under a pseudonym), and as it has been out of print since 1934 you are unlikely ever to have seen a copy, though you will surely have seen it widely quoted.Have you got it yet? The mystery title is Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald, first published in Edinburgh in 1930 by the Porpoise Press.Only 1,600 copies of the first edition were printed and they are now desperately scarce.If you can find one, especially in its handsome original dust jacket, expect to pay £150 or more. But snap it up. This book is uniquely important in whisky writing.Whisky has been made in Scotland since at least the 11th century. Written records date back to 1494. Yet Aeneas MacDonald’s little book is the first significant piece of writing to look at whisky from the drinker’s point of view.For that it will always be honoured.Subsequent writers are all in its debt and, indeed, many of them quote from his work.But Whisky isn’t just an interesting historical curiosity. It remains relevant to this day. That’s why, two years ago, I determined to see if it could be reprinted and a new edition issued for 21st century drinkers.That was the beginning of a challenging puzzle. First of all why did ‘Aeneas MacDonald’ never write again on whisky?After all, the book clearly springs from deep knowledge and a great passion for the cratur.No-one, even fellow fans, had the answer.So it was easy enough to deduce that ‘Aeneas MacDonald’ was a pseudonym – but this just deepened the mystery and the author’s real name remained well hidden.However, after some determined digging, research in the National Library of Scotland and reference to a little-known and out of print academic monograph on the Porpoise Press, the truth was revealed.He was George Malcolm Thomson (1899- 1996), a highly regarded Scottish journalist and writer; author of a number of historical and political biographies, a novel and a history of Scotland. Thomson also had a distinguished war service alongside Lord Beaverbrook (for whom he worked as a journalist and long-term adviser) and was eventually awarded the OBE in 1990.In 1930, though, he had just moved to London to work for the Daily Express (then a newspaper of great influence and political significance). Despite this, he was heavily involved in nationalist politics in his native Scotland and corresponded widely with Neil Gunn who, influenced by Thomson/MacDonald, later contributed his own Whisky & Scotland (1935) to whisky’s literary canon.So why publish Whisky anonymously?There are two answers – firstly his mother was an ardent teetotaller and he wanted to avoid embarrassing her. The family name and reputation was important to him and his mother’s deeply-held beliefs were not to be trifled with.Secondly, in 1928, his Caledonia, or the Future of the Scots had attracted huge controversy and it may be that he did not want the Porpoise Press, or his new book, to be mired in the critical storm surrounding the earlier work.But identifying Thomson revealed a new problem. Copyright in written work survives for 70 years after the author’s death. Though he died as recently as 1996, Thomson at first seemed to have disappeared.His former publishers had no forwarding contact. His old agent no longer represented the estate. Friends of the family had no idea how to contact any surviving relatives. It seemed the project was dead for, without copyright clearance, no publisher would take on the project.Then I had two pieces of good fortune.By chance I met Jamie Byng, owner and publisher of Canongate Books in Edinburgh, in the departure lounge of Toulouse airport.He couldn’t escape my pitch for the book!As Scotland’s foremost literary publishers, Canongate is in many respects the spiritual successor to Porpoise. Jamie fell in love with the idea and promised to publish Whisky, even without the copyright owner.And then the last piece fell into place. In an obscure research database in the library of the University of Texas I found the name and address of Thomson’s literary executor – his daughter, Anne Ettlinger, living just 40 miles from the offices of Whisky Magazine.Fortunately, she was delighted at the idea of reviving her father’s work and has fully supported this project. The photographs of George Thomson, published here for the first time, come from her family album and she provided many anecdotes to help fill out his character.So today, a classic of whisky literature is again widely available in a handsomely produced Canongate hardback that echoes the original design.But why bother reading it? After all, it is 75 years old and it doesn’t even have any nice period pictures.First of all, because it was the first book of its kind. Written at a time when we might have expected whisky’s obituary MacDonald/Thomson provides a clarion call to action and a passionately argued case for the importance of whisky and its contribution to national identity.Secondly, because it’s marvellously well written. Who can resist the poetry of his opening paragraphs?“It (whisky) belongs to the alchemist’s den and the long nights shot with cold flickering beams; it is compact of Druid spells and Sabbaths (of the witches and the Calvinists); its graces are not shameless, Latin, and abundant, but have a sovereign austerity, whether the desert’s or the north wind’s; there are flavours in it, insinuating and remote, from mountain torrents and the scanty soil on moor-land rocks and slanting, rare sun-shafts.” As well as poetry it is full of humour, and rare insights, and long historical perspectives (Thomson wrote a History of Scotland).Finally, it’s still relevant today.MacDonald/Thomson is a single malt man, and his list of “twelve names… which will probably win all but universal acceptance in representing Highland whisky at its most distinguished” is an impressive roll of honour which, the current fashion for Islay malts apart, would stand as a useful refresher to even the most experienced drinker.His cry for clear labelling and precise descriptions is a modern one and the industry could do worse than consider his plea that each label on a bottle ought to contain: “The names of the malt whiskies… in the blend, and the exact percentage of grain spirit… it should state the number of years and months that the blend and each of its constituents has matured in cask.” Would that be so hard? Or so very awful?There’s so much more here worth discovering for yourself. Read this book – after all, “whisky now belongs not to the Scots but to the world at large.” Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Anne Ettlinger; the Faber & Faber archives; Steven Rothman and Charles MacLean for his foreword to the new edition.Pictures of George Malcolm Thomson © Anne Ettlinger
Whisky by Aeneas MacDonald, with a new Appreciation by Ian Buxton is published by Canongate Books, price £9.99 in hardback. ISBN: 1 84195 857 3